Tuesday, November 20, 2007

CONSIDERING THE BODY COUNT

It's been five days since Ron Silliman posted his generous review of Damn the Caesars, Vol. III. Despite the charges leveled against it, particularly the willful misreading of the editorial statement, I frame the review as generous simply because of the space and careful attention devoted to discussion of the journal—attention for which I'm naturally grateful. As most of us know, any mention of a publication on Silliman’s blog—however ephemeral that publication might be—translates immediately to a quantitative increase in sales and a qualitative increase in discussion around that publication. Further, it's no small honor having a figure of Silliman's stature think so carefully through your work and the work of those you promote. This is something. It truly is.

But were there a rubric for quantitatively measuring the overall value of a poetry journal Damn the Caesars would have failed terrifically. According to the essentialist logic of statistical analysis, of the body count, the primary value of a journal becomes commensurate with coverage, with an equitable balance of authors from whatever culturally-constructed categories are believed to be determinate but are otherwise underrepresented at a particular historical moment. Driven by this logic in reviewing the journal, Silliman foregrounds what he reads as an irresponsible exclusion of women. Although he writes in the last sentence of the review that he suspects this was not my intention, he speculates earlier that the editorial statement which appears at the end of Vol. III may have been constructed as a "prophylactic" against charges of exclusion.

If this were the case—if the editorial were some kind of hermeneutic shell through which I protected myself and the journal—then logic like numbers would suggest that the exclusion of women was willful. In other words, crafting a disclaimer before publishing the journal would mean that I knew in advance, long before any charge has been leveled against me, that I've been excluding women. And doesn't knowing in advance suggest intention through a refusal to act, a refusal to solicit and publish work by women poets?

Of course the editorial statement wasn't constructed and strategically placed to protect me from charges of insufficient coverage. Having edited the journal for nearly three years, my aim in constructing the statement was simply to think through my position as editor. Part of my aim was also to address for readers the complexity of the journal's aesthetic. Often misreading the title of the journal, no small number of poets have insisted on sending me what they clearly view as "political" or protest poems. Deeply frustrated, I attempted to clarify an editorial position that would respond to this problem. But I also wanted to think through what it means to edit, to take work and transform it, to coral it in a pen with the work of others such that particular aspects of a poem might rise to the surface, so to speak, while others fall away. Editing is a form of reading but in subtle and highly nuanced ways it also determines how the work edited will be read by others. It is never preinterpretive and what we find at stake in editing is not only the reception of a poem, but the very poem itself. Aware of this, I found it essential to begin rigorously thinking through the ethical implications of editing.

Although I refuse to crunch numbers in advance of discussing the Spahr-Young debate which seems to have occasioned Silliman's willful misreading of Damn the Caesars, it may be useful to discuss how work gets into the journal. With very few exceptions, all of the work published in DTC is solicited. Most of the men I solicit for work tend to respond and respond quickly. There are a few who don't, but they tend to be the exception. But let me provide a partial list of the women I've asked for work, women who, for one reason or another, were not necessarily hostile toward the journal or my request but simply unable to provide work. And keep in mind I've asked many of these poets several times, as all are poets I deeply admire or believe produce meaningful work. They range in age, among other things, and include: Renee Gladman, Hoa Nguyen, Lisa Robertson, Stacy Szymaszek, Wang Ping, Christine Hume, Carla Harryman, Nancy Kuhl, Jessa Crispin, Jenny Boully, Cecilia Vicuna, Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, Dodie Bellamy, Eileen Myles, Rosemarie Waldrop, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Rachel Loden, Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot, Linda Russo, Gloria Frym, Leslie Scalapino, Maighread Medbh, Aine Miller, Eileen Sheehan. Let me repeat: this is merely a partial list. Many of these poets have responded warmly to my requests but have, for various reasons, been unable to provide work. Some have not responded at all. Perhaps those letters soliciting work never made it to these poets. Perhaps these poets were simply too busy to respond. If we look at poets such as DuPlessis and Waldrop, we might simply assume they're busy or have committed the work elsewhere. Some of the poets mentioned here I'm friends with. Some I have asked once and others I've asked three or four or five times over the past two years. In any event, perhaps these names should be included in body-count calculations, as I've painstakingly sought mailing and email addresses for each of them, and have crafted careful letters and messages discussing their work and requesting new work for the journal.

There are a number of women poets whose work I follow closely but refuse to solicit. I refuse simply because close friends have recently published their work or are planning to publish them. This is certainly the case for British poets Frances Kruk, Sophie Robinson and Harriet Tarlo—all of whom were featured in the latest issue of Pilot. As editor Matt Chambers is a close friend, I made the decision not to ask Kruk for work, however much her forceful poetic intervention might mean to me. Rather than compete with Pilot, which is published in the same town with partial support from the same university, I chose to publish other poets.

Both Chambers and I have taken an active interest in contemporary British poetry over the past few years, just as Eric Mottram took an active interest in American poetry during the 1970s. But despite Mottram's place in British poetry and his tireless attempt to bridge the Atlantic through promoting American poetry at home, I suspect with some sadness that few reading this will know his name. Unfortunately the tree here is still a distinctly American one and we are, for the most part, guilty of the "literary jingoism" David Jones scholar John Matthias accused us of years ago. Indeed, the Brit po issue of Chicago Review, while it makes a much-needed gesture toward ameliorating what I read as a destructive literary patriotism within the US also serves, in many ways, to reinscribe this patriotism. The issue -- carefully edited and introduced by Sam Ladkin -- appeals to nation as the organizing principle and announces itself as a "British Poetry Issue." But as such it comes perilously close to standing in for readers within the US as the British Poetry Issue, as a representative sample of all the various poetries being produced in Britain at the present moment. Aware of how utterly impossible and frustrating the task of editing within the coordinates of inflexible categories can be, Ladkin selects four poets situated at intersecting points where various poetry communities within Britain have overlapped and informed each others' projects. In conjunction with the fifteen reviews and various notes at the end of the issue, a reader might get some sense of the poetic landscape in Britain, but this grasp of the landscape would only be partial. In other words, all editing excludes, willfully or otherwise. Where, for example, are poets of color in CR's Brit Po issue? Ladkin could have solicited work from David Marriott, some of whose work has been published through Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland's Barque Press, but would Marriott—located for some time in Santa Cruz, California—qualify now as a British poet? Moreover, if Ladkin had selected a poet of color as one of the four featured, would this poet have been read as a poet as such or reductively instrumentalized and framed as representative of all non-white communities within Britain? Would the non-whiteness of this poet have been foregrounded in an introduction or biographical note? The questions are complex and not easy to answer.

But let's turn back to Frances Kruk, whose work as poet and Yt Communications editor is mentioned only in passing by Keith Tuma in CR's Brit Po issue. Her work is particularly important to me. The buzzsaw staccato lines which are characteristic of her poetry speak a rage and investigation of the grotesque seldom found among Anglophone poets regardless of sex. Take the following lines from the collection Clobber:

this being how i char the pretty
off the lip how i burn
mine quick electric prick
tough take it
cold and skinless

If we didn't have the seeming transparency of the name to rely on we might read this as Silliman reads those poems by Billy Childish that appear in Vol. III of DTC, one of which Silliman believes "almost Archie Bunkerville in its masculinist take on the world." Mired as we are in this particular historical conjuncture, with Gordon Brown playing a fool in the UK and the Bush administration running riot here, it's unclear to me why refusal, resistance and rage are always reductively and, in my opinion, irresponsibly gendered. This is to say, when a poet such as Billy Childish attempts to take stock of his lot as an artist that has spent a good deal of his life living in abject poverty, when he attempts within the frame of the poem to shore up the few fragments he has against the socio-economic nightmare of British neoliberalism, such a gesture is read as a masculinist poetics. And indeed the Childish poem is far more complex than this quick reading suggests. But we do find a very similar poetics operating in Kruk's poems. Rage is present in the work of both Childish and Kruk—not to mention that of fellow Yt Communications poet Sean Bonney. But this rage is contained within the limits of the poem. It is a purely textual rage, a rhetorical rage. Moreover, rage is often specific to class and while it may at times be gendered and read as purely masculine, the context, even if it is only within the frame of the poem, can be so overdetermined that it cannot be reduced to gender but must be thought carefully in the full plenitude of its complexity.

Since founding the journal I have been painfully aware of the uneven balance between men and women in its pages. Just today I received work from British poet Harry Gilonis. Then work from Richard Kostelanetz. Linda Russo wrote shortly after reading Silliman's review and said she was eager to contribute, though still working through the poems she hopes to send. Similarly I am waiting for work from Stacy Szymaszek. At the present moment, however, I have in hand contributions from Alan Gilbert, Chris Martin, Hugo Garcia Manriquez and a number of other men. That ALL of the work I have in hand is from men and none of it from women is deeply troubling to me. But as I state above, this isn't the result of not having asked. As for not publishing work submitted, I recall having rejected work by one woman, and this piece was an interview with a man. As for submissions from men, I've received dozens if not hundreds. With few exceptions, most of these submissions seemed unsuitable to me. Anyhow, to identify a gap in coverage and rush to publish work which fills that gap also seems insufficient. What would it mean to publish all submissions from women, regardless of content or quality, in order to correct this imbalance? This would not only be a disservice to other contributors within the journal, it would be a disservice to those contributors published exclusively for the purpose of filling the gap. That is, to edit along such lines is to instrumentalize the work of others, to use someone's work in order to fulfill an undisclosed agenda. If we are to take work expressly for the purpose of filling such gaps, do we disclose this to the contributor? Do we say we've taken the work not because we connect with it, not because it fits the broader theme or aesthetic of a particular issue, but because it merely fills a gap that critics and poets with clout or institutional power have identified? Again, the conversation is complex.

Any response I might formulate to Silliman's review—and the larger discussion around the Spahr-Young thesis advanced in Foulipo and again in the latest issue of CR—can never be more than provisional. As the conversation unfolds the material and intellectual landscape beneath the issue of the body count shifts. If we look to other categories, other gaps, we might take into consideration editors such as Cid Corman. There are few women poets that appear in the pages of Origin and if we counted heads the numbers would certainly be criminally uneven. Nonetheless Corman devoted an impressive amount of energy to publishing and promoting the work of Lorine Niedecker. Corman didn't publish a wide range of women poets but committed himself almost entirely to the work of one. If not for his efforts—along with those of another poet-editor, Jonathan Williams—it is quite possible Niedecker's work would have fallen completely out of circulation. The case is the same for Corman's commitment to the work of Larry Eigner. When Eigner's work appeared in Origin it wasn't framed as a poetry of disability. As editor, Corman was careful not to read Eigner's work through his disability. Rather it appeared alongside the work of Olson, Creeley and others, positioned within the journal such that it stood on the same ground and in dialog with the work around it. But perhaps I'm just beating the old sameness/difference conversation into the ground.

In any event, it's with the deepest respect that I respond to Silliman's review. Due to the haste with which his blog entries are written and posted he's become an easy target in recent years. People hammer away without reservation at his characteristically aggressive, even masculinist, attacks on the work of others. Nonetheless, most of us would agree that we learn more about contemporary poetry through reading his blog than through most other sources. If we devote our attention exclusively to his blog and allow it to define our sense of him in the present moment, it becomes easy to forget how important works like New Sentence expanded the scope of the possible within poetry or how anthologies like In the American Tree rigorously and self-reflexively questioned the ethics of anthologizing, of constructing categories. Indeed, in a moment of anger that's somewhat embarrassing to me now, I read through the table of contents for In the American Tree looking to count bodies and crunch numbers. After I counted names and tallied figures I skimmed through the preface, which I haven't read in some time, and came across the following sentence: "Anthologies are not facts, but individual viewpoints over complex fields of information." Although he's been given to reducing the complexity of such fields of information in recent years, it was nice to read that statement again. The same can certainly be said of magazines. Damn the Caesars represents one individual viewpoint, but fortunately it is one among many—so much so that where I have failed as an editor perhaps others can succeed.
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ADDENDUM: In somewhat of a gross oversight on my part, I failed to mention that the British Poetry Issue of Chicago Review (53:1) was coedited by Robin Purves—though both Purves and Ladkin recently informed me that the more serious error in the statement above lies in the assumption that nation was the primary organizing principle of the issue. Neither Ladkin nor Purves, in editing the issue, aimed to offer a representative range of contemporary British poetry, but rather a select number of UK poets who, in their opinion, currently produce interesting and innovative work. Before the issue went to print both Ladkin and Purves suggested using the less representative title "4 UK Poets"— though, in an effort to command attention and generate conversation, CR went with the more provocative "British Poetry Issue".

Friday, November 16, 2007

Away

Rich is in Austin, Texas, & will respond to Silliman's review when he returns on Sunday (11/18).
-KO